In This Issue
Spring Bridge on the US Metals Industry: Looking Forward
March 29, 2024 Volume 54 Issue 1
In this issue of The Bridge, guest editors Greg Olson and Aziz Asphahani have assembled feature articles that demonstrate how computational materials science and engineering is leading the way in the deployment of metallic materials that meet increasingly advanced design specifications.

Guest Editors' Note Challenges and Opportunities for the US Metals Industry

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Author: Aziz I. Asphahani and Gregory B. Olson

It is widely recognized that US manufacturers must out-innovate their competitors and that, for key sectors, competitiveness will be defined by the ability to develop and deploy advanced materials.[1] Comparably, the importance of materials has been highlighted in Japan with the recognition that the “material industry of Japan, especially structural materials, has been the backbone of the whole Japanese industry.”[2] The US metals industry plays a similarly vital role in the ongoing restoration of domestic manufacturing.

In this short series of invited essays, most challenges confronting the metals supplier industry are illustrated by steel and aluminum, the highest volume sectors, while the opportunities to address these challenges are dependent on the metals user and design services industries, emphasizing innovative alloy sectors. By examining the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI), the leading ­national research initiative coordinated by the Department of Commerce, this issue explores the ­government’s role in enhancing ongoing metals innovation and ­broadens its scope beyond steel and aluminum (e.g., titanium, magnesium, nickel, cobalt, and niobium) and across other ­classes of materials (e.g., ceramics, polymers, and composites).

Raymond Monroe, executive vice president at the Steel Founders Society, recounts the history of the ­United States’ steel production and emphasizes that construction steel is urgently needed to rebuild US infra­structure. Public policy, or the lack thereof, in conjunction with the globalization associated with the ill-fated concept of a “service economy,” has brought ­serious damage to this component of our industry. Despite steady improvements in steel production technology, the 1980s saw a severe flattening in the quantity of domestically produced steel, with an attendant increase in imports. In recent years, unfair competitive practices, supported by strategic investments, have enabled a historic dominance in steel production by China. Monroe calls for the enactment of policies that would assuage US financial institutions’ reluctance to invest in the steel industry and improve the investment climate for this important sector.

A more optimistic perspective on aluminum is provided by Scientific Director Timothy Warner and his colleagues at Constellium, a multinational corporation with a growing US presence. Motivated by the stricter sustainability requirements in Europe, a major focus of ongoing technology development is the comprehensive enhancement of energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions in the production and use of aluminum products, with a significant focus on recyclability.

The globally acknowledged imperative of sustainability has brought attention to the underlying issues of ­materials technology. The time and cost of the traditional practice of trial-and-error empirical development have been major barriers to achieving the required pace of materials innovation to meet pressing needs related to sustain­ability and the environment. An especially promising role of government in meeting this challenge has been the development of MGI, as discussed by Jim Warren, director of the Materials Genome Program at NIST. Launched in 2011, this presidential initiative set the goal of building out the integration of computational methods and supporting materials science databases, mechanistic models, and efficient experimental validation, compressing the traditional ten-to-twenty-year materials development and deployment cycle by at least fifty percent and substantially reducing cost. The attention MGI garnered led to its swift adoption by leading corporations such as Apple, SpaceX, and Tesla. The cycle of materials development and deployment has already been compressed to two years or less. Ongoing MGI-related activities are broadening applications beyond the notable successes in metals to non-metallic materials and building the database infrastructure to expand beyond the core CALPHAD systems.

In the context of meeting MGI’s goals, Jiadong Gong, CTO and CIO at QuesTek, a computational ­materials design company, overviews the significant achievements of efficient computational design grounded in the “genomic-level” CALPHAD data system, which has steadily grown in accuracy and scope in recent decades. Current interest in rapidly developing AI technology has fostered its integration into computational design. While raw AI methods have aided in the discovery of chemical compounds, the delivery of complex multi­phase ­materials has seen its greatest success in the ­knowledge-based CALPHAD approach. There is cur­rently an opportunity for hybrid approaches that integrate fundamental ­materials science knowledge with data-assisted AI techniques.

Echoing the importance of the new technology of computational materials design, Charles Kuehmann, vice president of materials engineering at SpaceX and Tesla, highlights the role of materials concurrency in radically accelerating materials-intensive manufacturing innovation. Keuhmann outlines a five-step process referred to as the Algorithm that has enabled this innovation. As a case study, the example of Tesla’s now-famous aluminum gigacasting illustrates the rapid design of a novel alloy with the concurrent creation of a large-scale manufacturing system, making it possible for affordable aluminum car structures to be included in automotive electrification.

Fully realizing the opportunities outlined in this issue demands a substantial change in technical workforce development. A further side effect of the service economy was a shift in the nature of federal research support to favor the pursuit of novelty (i.e., discovery) at the expense of utility (i.e., designed and engineered products). Moreover, despite the power of computational engineering demonstrated by industry, many educators are still predominantly experimentalists, slowing the modernization of the materials curriculum by relying solely on their prior experience and know-how of the traditional trial-and-error approach. A 2019 National Academies review of ­materials research[3] not only recommended extending the MGI for a second decade but also strongly advocated for a return of support for the previously neglected “classical ­materials” of metals and ceramics. Such a return to utility is vital to the successful restoration of a domestic manufacturing economy.

[1]  US Council on Competitiveness. 2018. Leverage Phase II Sector Study: Aerospace (white paper). Washington, DC.

[2]  Cross-ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion Program. 2016. Structural Materials for Innovation. Department of Innovation Platform, Japan Science and Technology Agency. Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Japan.

[3]  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. Frontiers of Materials Research: A Decadal Survey. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

About the Author:Aziz I. Asphahani (NAE) is chairman and CEO, QuesTek Innovations, and Gregory B. Olson (NAE) is professor of the practice, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.